On April 22, A Dream Like a Dream charity show in Wuhan was still ongoing, but several related topics have already found their way to Weibo’s hot search rankings.
This might be the hottest theatrical play on the internet to date.
As a major IP work with 21 years of history and the participation of the most popular celebrity actor, A Dream Like a Dream paid respects to the heroes of the pandemic last year through a premiere charity showing and it is full of stories both in and out of the play.
On the third day before the start of the show, Yuli Studio went backstage, and entered the dream ahead of time.
At noon on April 19, with still 15 minutes to go before the first dress rehearsal of A Dream Like a Dream, there weren’t many audience members, and all were sitting in the lotus pond seating area.
The main producer Wang Keran was suddenly informed that someone was secretly recording, and immediately called over the executive producer Da Shan to ask, they expressed that they’ve already told the audience to not take pictures several times. Wang Keran’s expression darkened, and loudly criticized Da Shan’s inadequate work, before getting up and saying, “Everyone seated here are friends deserving of our trust, we ask that you protect the actors, and stop filming.”
Xu Qing, Xiao Zhan, Zhang Liang, Huang Lu… the participation of many celebrity actors greatly heightened the attention received by A Dream Like a Dream.
Protecting the actors became something that Wang Keran has been doing since the group was formed.
Yanghua Culture worked with Poly Theatre and did a massive amount of detailed work to ensure that the project would proceed smoothly, “The theatre put in a lot, the small amount of ticket revenue the theatre can get is far from enough to cover their huge investment.”
Wang Keran also helped Xiao Zhan refuse countless autograph and photo requests. His good old classmate came all the way to Wuhan just to get a picture with Xiao Zhan, but Wang Keran still declined, “I promised to give the actor a pure creative environment.”
A Dream Like a Dream theatre group worked hard to try to give actors a fair and cohesive creative atmosphere. Here, there would be no celebrity actor Xiao Zhan, just Patient No. 5 B.
Backstage of Wuhan Qintai Theatre, the sign outside Xiao Zhan’s waiting room doesn’t read “Xiao Zhan”, but “No. 5”.
The directors Chen Limei and and Zhang Rui said, the group won’t treat Xiao Zhan like a special actor; Huang Lu who plays the role of Jiang Hong and has the most scenes with Xiao Zhan said that everyone here is just an actor.
In private, Xiao Zhan would treat Huang Lu to fruits, and ask her for movie recommendations. Huang Lu said, it’s no different working with Xiao Zhan compared to with other co-actors, the biggest difference might just be the increase of private messages from Xiao Zhan fans, the vast majority of which are words of encouragement.
At the start of rehearsals, the director put Huang Lu and Xiao Zhan into a small practice room to work on their synergy.
“When we were rehearsing the French scene, I knew that he’s from Chongqing, so I would suddenly use Chengdu dialect translated from French and say to him, whaddya want to eat, and then he’ll reply to me in Chongqing dialect.”
Huang Lu recalls, when Xiao Zhan joined the cast, he had already memorized the script, and it only took three to four days to build their synergy. When it comes to details of performance, they also inspire each other.
For example, the scene in the Paris apartment, which received the biggest reaction from the audience at the charity show, was Xiao Zhan’s idea. Xiao Zhan suggested that they got to the “Monday Wednesday Friday, Tuesday Thursday Saturday” lines, they can put their heads together for a better effect.
For the comedic scene where the two spoke to each other in the Japanese, there were traces of the old version, as well as new creations; “Pikachu” was from the old version, while “sleeping” was Xiao Zhan’s own idea.
A Dream Like a Dream has a long run time, with an enormous number of lines. During rehearsal, one actor suddenly lost their train of thought, and their lines became more and more fragmented as their voice continuously lowered, and they were harshly criticized by the director Chen Limei that day. But in the director’s memory, Xiao Zhan never had such problems.
“Xiao Zhan is very serious; we can all feel that. Every night he goes home, he definitely goes through all his parts in his mind, so he wouldn’t make this kind of mistake.”
Xiao Zhan expressed that his familiarity with the lines is already to a point where he can “say them without thinking”, his focus now lies in “the feeling in the moment and the sparks with his partner actors.”
Xiao Zhan is very strict with himself, after the first dress rehearsal on the 19th, many live audiences gave his performance good reviews, but he said, “I’m not too satisfied today, it wasn’t as good as yesterday.” Even though the audience couldn’t hear any issues with that “Monday Wednesday Friday, Tuesday Thursday Saturday” part, but after going offstage, Xiao Zhan himself felt that it was slightly lacking.
To Xiao Zhan, the seating arrangement of the lotus pond for A Dream Like a Dream was a challenge; it made it easy for him to be distracted, and if he loses focus for a moment, it’s easy for lose hold of the scene altogether. He described, “for concerts, the feeling is that you have to interact promptly, while theatre to me is about making myself lonely.” Therefore, he has to be able to not notice the audience.
Wang Keran invited a theatre scholar to watch the rehearsal on the 19th. After the first part ended, they praised Xiao Zhan for acting well, and Wang Keran proudly recommended this newly discovered good actor: “He has different layers of the creative process; on the first day we finished reading the script, and on the second day he stepped on stage and immediately shocked me, he was still green, but his instincts were on point. He’s able to paint the character in intricate and rich layers, it wasn’t just the passionate scenes, for which everyone bursts with power, but also that he’s intricate, moving, and funny, and able to convey the essence of the character, his rhythm is so good.”
Xiao Zhan’s fate with A Dream Like a Dream began at least year’s Cao Yu 110 Year Memorial Special Event.
In 2019, Wang Keran had heard of Xiao Zhan’s name, but quickly forgot it. “Back then, I was in Wuxi, there was this huge crowd in the hotel, and I heard that the most popular actor these days is here, his name is Xiao Zhan.”
Then in 2020, a psychiatrist friend told Wang Keran to pay attention to this actor Xiao Zhan.
“Before then, I was an older person, and I only picked actors over the age of 35. But after hearing from the psychiatrist, I started taking note of this person both consciously and subconsciously, and I found that he was really interesting.”
“Interesting how? When many people were attacking him, I wanted to understand what the reason for this attack was, and I discovered that for this group of people, the realest and most hypocritical things existed as a contradictory entity. The idols of this generation are different from those five years ago, they’re placed there as a symbol, as something to be used, fought over, or even trampled upon. Through Xiao Zhan, I paid attention to the new waves in the development of society; only by understanding this wave, can works of art be in tune with the generation. That’s my theatrical outlook; theatre must make emotional connections between theatrical actions on stage in this moment and the people of this time and place.”
For Cao Yu memorial event, Wang Keran needed to find a young actor who could converse with Wan Fang. A colleague suggested Xiao Zhan, and Wang Keran suddenly realized, this is so fitting, “Xiao Zhan’s complexity is sufficient to represent the complexity of theatre.”
The first time he met Xiao Zhan, Wang Keran caught on to the mysterious sense of fate behind him, but he also radiated a youthful flair and gentle feeling. Wang Keran gave Xiao Zhan a book list, and told him to read them, then Xiao Zhan took several days to read all the books, and wrote tens of questions for Wan Fang; the questions were simple yet deep, and moved Wang Keran.
At the Cao Yu memorial event, Wang Keran observed Xiao Zhan, and found that he gave off a great feeling on stage, then immediately invited him join A Dream Like a Dream.
To Wang Keran, the similarity between Xiao Zhan and Patient No. 5 lies in the unpredictability of their fates.
Xiao Zhan’s interpretation of Patient No. 5 gave Wang Keran a pleasant surprise, and they haven’t yet discussed whether he will continue to play the part of Patient No. 5 after this year’s tour, but Wang Keran thinks that A Dream Like a Dream already gave Xiao Zhan some results, “I think he can prove that he’s a good actor through this play, and I feel that A Dream Like a Dream gave him a kind of power.”
Entering the Dream Again
Not only did it include the addition of Xiao Zhan, the cast of A Dream Like a Dream was almost completely changed.
There wasn’t much time left to the directors. Rehearsals, outfits, formations and such work proceeded simultaneously. A Dream Like a Dream is already a large amount of work, and there’s also strain on the time, so the entire cast and crew had hellish schedules.
For example, their schedule for the actors on the day of the April 22 charity show was as follows:
10:30 and 11:30 Actresses and actors leave from their hotels and head to the theatre for makeup, styling, and change into their costumes.
12:30 Put on audio equipment and test microphones
13:10 Warm up
13:30 Audience entry
14:00 Start of charity show
After a show nearly 8 hours long, when the actors were finished media interviews it was already 0:30.
12-hour work days have been the norm for the cast and crew this past month. Even for rehearsals without makeup and styling, they still need to leave at 12:00, begin rehearsals at 13:00, eat dinner at 17:00, rehearse again at 18:00, and wrap up after 22:00.
“We really gave it our all, we’ve never worked this hard before, because we didn’t change this many people in the past, so we might only head into the rehearsal venue at 2PM,” Chen Limei said.
Intensive rehearsals are a big test for the actors’ stamina, and nonstop rehearsals every day at the practice hall once made Huang Lu feel disoriented.
“Because we’re acting out the same things every day, we go in at daytime and come out at nighttime, I suddenly really wanted a normal lifestyle during that time. Once we were in a video call with Teacher Lai, and at the end each of us had to tell him our feelings about the play, I said that after watching this play, I suddenly feel that theatre and movies aren’t that important; life is more important, and that I really want to experience the feeling of interacting with people and spending time with family, friends, and lover.”
“When you film a drama, you’re still outside every day, and after wrapping up you can come in touch with real life. Before when I did a drama with Zhang Ruoyun, we rehearsed in Beijing, maybe three hours a day, then we could go see friends in the afternoon and at night. But these play was intensive practice, and every day by the time we finished it would be midnight.”
Wang Keran had predicted that actors might experience this kind of exhaustion, so the plan was always to take a break for awhile after 17 days of practice, until the week before the Wuhan show when everyone would be called back.
This kind of work style is not commonly seen in theatre, but for actors, it’s a good time to refresh and process everything.
“On our first day back, Keran said that was the time I acted best with Xiao Zhan,” Huang Lu said, “maybe after having processed everything and getting back in touch with real life, I was able to gain new understanding.”
Compared to A Dream Like a Dream from 8 years ago, this year’s version not only changed the cast, but also reduced the time by 15 minutes on the basis of not changing the script.
The main adjustment was the actors’ rhythm. For example, at the end of the first part, when the old butler talked about the story of the Earl with Gu Xianglan, originally it was done in a slow tone, but Wang Keran felt that it wasn’t right, “That form of expression was as if the grandpa had just arrived in Shanghai and was unfamiliar with his surroundings, but in reality, he’s familiar with the castle, he might come back often, like a tour guide.” Therefore, he adjusted the pace and tone of the dialogue so that it became richer and more layered.
Each improvement in detail began with the daily notes meeting.
During rehearsal, the two directors sat in the center of the lotus pond, set up a little table with a dim table light, and as the actors performed and the directors found problems, they would make notes on the script, or write furiously on white paper. After a day of practice, the papers were filled with two to three hundred lines of notes.
After the rehearsal, the actors would sit together in the lotus pond and listen to the director explain that day’s notes one by one, and each actor would record the part belonging to them.
The Notes app on Xiao Zhan’s phone was filled with each day’s notes. For example, there were ten notes on just April 19. Xiao Zhan’s notetaking method is simple and concise, he would note a particular scene, or a set place, and mark down the emotions and pacing that he would need to pay attention to.
In Zhang Liang’s memory, his own notes peaked at over 20 in one day, then as his problems decreased, so did his notes.
Director Chen Limei said, some actors would wonder, why is it that even with daily notes meeting, there were still hundreds of new notes every day, and if this meant that they haven’t improved. In reality, everyone was just improving further on the basis of already having improved.
“There’s a process to rehearsal, at first you might not be able to memorize the lines, and the notes would be about your lines. Once you pass that, it might be about your formation and actions, until in the final stage your acting had already gotten much better, I might pay attention to costume, hairstyle, and things that I wouldn’t notice before if I didn’t take a close look. Each stage had different issues to discover, and only after going from step one to step two, can you stee the problems in the next step, or your focus isn’t there.”
For example, on the final day before the official performance, the notes for Xiao Zhan became a minor detail like, “For the singing before the curtain call, stand further to the West.”
After experiencing three days of full rehearsals on April 18, 19, and 20, the rehearsal on the final day became “notes rehearsal”, where they would focus on the problems in the notes, then practice those specific elements and reinforce scenes they were likely to have problems with, such as the rhythm in the group scene at Tian Xian Ge, the Earl’s scenes with young Xianglan, etc. For Xiao Zhan and Huang Lu, their practice revolved around the scene where they circled the stairs, and they needed to pay special attention to their eye contact going up and down the stairs and their performance without props when they pushed open the door to enter.
After the premiere show on the 22nd, the notes meetings will still continue, and there will be improvements to each future show.
After the dress rehearsal on April 19, all the actors gathered backstage and stood silently around the directors, it appeared to be a special ceremony.
The new actors who joined this year were also seeing this for the first time, but to those who were part of A Dream Like a Dream before, this has already become a habit.
Director Chen Limei introduced this ending ceremony as “Echo”, it was Lai Shengchuan’s habit – one that goes back to when A Dream Like a Dream first toured in Mainland. “After each show, when we receive applause from the audience and emotions toward our characters, we want to relay those feelings again to more people. You can think of a large group, and we’ll spread this blessing and share it together.
Two years ago, at Chongqing Grand Theatre, Wang Keran had the thought of getting more people to understand and feel theatre, so he started planning A Dream Like a Dream’s nine city tour.
When they first heard this plan, Chen Limei and Zhang Rui both thought it was an impossible wish.
“Because for such a large-scale production like A Dream Like a Dream, it’s likely that we’ll be operating a loss. With such a large crew of around 130 people, there are so many people’s food and living expenses, and then in each location we would have to set a new stage which would take a week to put up, all for a few shows.”
Until early last year, Keran still said that we have to do it, I was like, really? How, with the pandemic? Last year he was already saying that we can definitely do it next year. This might be related to his perspective on life, he will definitely accomplish what he sets out to do. Like in the old days, when he did his first play, he sold four houses.”
Compared to A Dream Like a Dream from earlier years, this year’s scale of investment was clearly larger. More tour cities mean higher costs associated with the move. Rehearsing in Tang Shan is not like rehearsing in Beijing, actors have to eat and live in Tang Shan, all of which costs money.
On the other hand, the seating capacity of theatres is fixed, and there is an upper limit to ticket prices. But even with these low profit margins, Wang Keran still decided to do an unsold charity show. “The cost is too high, after the charity show, this stop’s profit is actually just gone,” Wang Keran said.
During the pandemic, Wang Keran already got the idea of doing a charity show in Wuhan.
At the time, he called the theatre’s general manager, and asked about the situation in Wuhan. “He stayed in Wuhan, and told me, if you really care about us this much, bring your best show over. I asked, which one? And he said, A Dream Like a Dream. So I thought, if A Dream Like a Dream doesn’t go, we can’t express our respect to this city, and we’ll do a charity show, for free.”
The actors share this idealism.
Wang Keran said, working in theatre is tough, practice time is long, and even though official shows at each stop only lasted three days, we needed a week’s time to rehearse. The time of popular celebrities is calculated in days, but they willingly left time in their schedules for the play.
Actor Sun Zhongyi who plays the role of the old butler and the professor in the play is a key actor of Yanghua, and he had received an opportunity to star as the male lead in a movie, this was very important to him, but it clashed with one show of A Dream Like a Dream. For the sake of the play, he let go of this rare opportunity.
Theatre is not as profitable as film, and no matter how famous the celebrity is, the income is far below what they normally charge for dramas. The rehearsal fee for the actors of A Dream Like a Dream is 100 yuan a day, but all the actors cooperated seriously.
Huang Lu said, sometimes they’d joke that they’re “missing out on earning money”, but everyone felt that this was good, it’s rare to have the opportunity to spend a whole year to concentrate on one thing. The days when everyone ate and practiced together in Tang Shan was like returning to campus.
“We all didn’t come for money,” Huang Lu said. She treats A Dream Like a Dream as a hard to come by opportunity, as training for her acting, and as a session for self-improvement.
Each actor put their all into their performance.
The new addition Ge Xinyi, who plays the young Gu Xianglan, looked to the senior actors and actresses for guidance; the experienced actor Feng Xianzhen’s grasp of the character is graceful and powerful, the three versions of Gu Xianglan have a cohesive soul; Zhang Liang portrayed an Ear different from Jin Shijie’s version but equally deep; a group of old actors with Fu Xing as their representative worked as the rock foundation in rehearsal and on stage, their solid performances helped each new actor build a strong and accurate system for acting.
Xu Qing, who has already played the role of Gu Xianglan for nine years and engraved it into her blood and bones, also followed the progression of the whole cast, and participated in all the rehearsals. Wang Keran expressed his gratitude to Xu Qing in Tang Shan, “I’m really grateful that you appeared at practice, because you’re able to accurately complete each detail, and even if it’s a basic practice, you’re still serious and don’t hold back, you fully and accurately painted this character.”
Xu Qing looks to continuously improve in her acting, and she used to consult with Wang Keran for how to deal with each word, like for the scene after the Earl’s car accident, where Gu Xianglan hurriedly runs up to the police and says, “I see you incompetence,” she tried many different ways of expression. Even after nine years of A Dream Like a Dream, Xu Qing is still thinking hard and looking for the best way to handle each detail.
During the Wuhan rehearsal, Yuli Studio also saw that Xu Qing put plenty of emotion into each rehearsal. Especially for the key scene where Gu Xianglan takes off her Qipao and traverses the lotus pond in her pajamas, Xu Qing’s eyes were filled with tears after each performance.
Later, Xu Qing said to Wang Keran something that she hopes for him to share with the new actors, “Just tell them one thing, one minute on stage takes nine years off stage.”
People in theatre guard the stage with a form of idealism and passion. With this year’s A Dream Like a Dream receiving so much attention, Wang Keran hopes for more people to understand and come to love theatre.
He intentionally added a livestream segment after the charity show, so that more people outside of the 1200 seats in the theatre could see A Dream Like a Dream and hear the actors’ thoughts. He hopes that not only Xu Qing, Xiao Zhan, but also the unknown actors will be seen.
“I know how the news works, if it wasn’t a livestream, you guys will definitely edit out the unimportant people right? But I hope that everyone’s effort will be seen. Xu Qing and Xiao Zhan are also glad to use this method, I think this is belief in equality of cooperation established within them by theatre.”
A Dream Like a Dream will continue to tour in 9 cities. Wang Keran hopes that more youths will be moved to join theatre through this play, “I’ve had this thought since a long time ago, I just needed the right opportunity. We spend our whole lives hoping for theatre to have greater influence and for more people to join theatre, if we can make it happen, then Xu Qing, Xiao Zhan, Zhang Liang and all the other actors will have done a great thing.”
Yuli Interview with Xiao Zhan
Q: You started preparing long ago for this performance. What do you find challenging about this new field of theatre?
Xiao Zhan: If you had asked me this before, I might have said it was that you can’t NG and have to do everything in one take. After focusing and working together with everyone, rehearsing, immersing myself, I feel that the biggest challenge is not being able to deliver my most sincere emotions in the moment.
Q: Were you nervous, standing on stage before the audience for the first time?
Xiao Zhan: I was at first, and my palms were sweaty, but later on I relaxed.
Q: What kind of preparations did you do prior to going on stage?
Xiao Zhan: Warming up with everyone, opening up every cell in my body from head to toe, and feeling our states become a cohesive unit.
Q: How do you review your performance on the first day?
Xiao Zhan: I think I can do better.